Last month, Kevin Stitt had more power than any governor in the history of Oklahoma.
As April showers changed to May flowers, Stitt filed an executive order Friday seeking to extend his temporarily expanded powers under the Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act another 30 days. Among other statutes, the act allows the governor to transfer money and suspend rules and laws deemed to be a hindrance in combating the health emergency.
The Oklahoma Legislature first authorized Stitt’s expanded powers April 6, but both chambers passed SCR 1X today to grant a 30-day extension requested by the governor — with one major condition. Lawmakers gave the governor a 48-hour deadline to provide a report on actions taken under the expanded powers:
Such approval shall only become effective when the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives receive written documentation from the Governor which separately identifies the declaration of the Catastrophic Health Emergency and each of the powers authorized pursuant to Section 6101 et seq. of Title 63 of the Oklahoma Statutes and exercised by the Governor from the previous Catastrophic Health Emergency Executive Order and those powers which will continue or any powers to be newly exercised when the contingency for approval of the most recent order for declaration is met. The written documentation shall be received by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives within two business days after proper passage of this resolution.
The Senate Concurrent Resolution is intended to clarify the source of authority for Stitt’s executive orders, which said Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat (R-OKC) called “very confusing.”
Treat answered a series of questions from Senate Democrats about SCR 1X, which he admitted will not address another lingering question among lawmakers: Has the governor transferred and expended money under the Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act?
“We are seeking more transparency on these expenditures,” Treat said. “Those of you who came through [the Senate Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget meeting yesterday] saw that we have a transparency bill on the federal COVID dollars that come through. We are also seeking more transparency on any use of this executive order on the transfer (…) of any money.”
Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd (D-OKC) asked Treat if the Legislature knows whether Stitt has spent any money under his emergency powers.
“That is one of my frustrations and one of the reasons I want the delineation,” Treat said. “There has not been great communication on whether that has happened or not.”
Treat said lawmakers think an expenditure by the Department of Commerce regarding manufacturing may have been exercised under the Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act.
By a 43-4 vote, the Senate approved the measure, which can be terminated at any point by a vote of the Legislature. After the vote, Department of Commerce public information office Leslie Blair provided details on the manufacturing program referenced by Treat.
“For the Oklahoma Manufacturing Reboot Program we used $5 million of the governor’s Quick Action Closing Fund that was appropriated last session. These were not new dollars designated for any other purpose,” Blair said. “It was designed to assist manufacturers as they retooled to develop new products or expand their capabilities.”
Echols: ‘I admit I am a little confused’
Treat and House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) have a weekly breakfast with Stitt on Tuesday mornings. Treat said the governor told him this morning that he has been implementing three primary COVID-19-combating efforts under the Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act.
- Staffing flexibility for health facilities and the Oklahoma State Department of Health for hiring contract employees to conduct contact tracing;
- Waiver of a waiting period for seeking unemployment benefits with the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission;
- Waiver of state health information protection requirements in an effort to provide law enforcement and first responders.
While presenting SCR 1X on the House floor, Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols (R-OKC) said he was unsure which of Stitt’s executive orders were executed under the Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act.
“I admit I am a little confused as to which one was under which,” Echols said.
Asked by Rep. David Perryman (D-Chickasha) whether similar language requiring transparency was included in the Legislature’s first authorization, Echols said it was. Perryman followed up.
“Why would we grant this power at this point in time if the governor has not complied with the very language of the first HCR and put it into the second SCR on a hope and a prayer the governor will comply with the law?” Perryman asked.
Echols replied: “That’s a good question and a fair question.”
Echols said he believes Stitt has used his powers “wisely” on policy matters, and he closed debate on SCR 1X.
“Nobody in here knows what is coming as we move to re-open this economy. Nobody,” Echols said. “And I believe what protects citizens is to continue to give these powers.”
The measure passed the House on a 73-24 vote.
When he first declared COVID-19 as a health emergency and invoked the act for the first time in state history on April 2, Stitt publicly committed to relaying information about his use of the expanded powers.
“Absolutely,” Stitt said when asked if he would tell media and the Legislature what laws or rules are suspended. “We want to be transparent, so we will let you know — the media know — if there are any rules that are suspended. This is really an unprecedented time.”
This morning, NonDoc asked Stitt’s chief of communications, Charlie Hannema, for a list of rules or laws suspended and monies transferred under the Catastrophic Health Emergency Powers Act.
Hannema said “no money have been moved” and that the act “was used to waive the unemployment work search requirement and to be able to provide first responders with some personal health information regarding addresses where someone has tested positive for COVID-19.”
Hannema said the Stitt administration is preparing a formal letter to the Legislature to comply with the SCR 1X provisions.
(Correction: This story was updated at 3:40 p.m. Tuesday, May 5, to correct reference to David Perryman.)